Film Review: District 9

Aliens have been on Earth for 28 years. Not invaders, not even supplicants, they simply appeared here, stranded, and became terrestrial refugees. Mysteriously lacking leadership like isolated drone workers in an ant colony, they submitted to containment in a ghetto outside Johannesburg, South Africa, in the shadow of the mothership which has floated in lifeless silence for nearly three decades.

District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s first major feature, picks up as that ghetto is about to be cleared. District 9 is too close to Johannesburg for human comfort now that the aliens, popularly maligned as “prawns,” have turned to crime and scavenging. So a new, Auschwitz-like camp is set up and christened District 10, and Multi-National United, a private contractor responsible for the aliens – but pointedly uninterested in their welfare – begins serving eviction notices.

District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs, Vanessa Haywood

The fundamentals are quickly established in the film’s opening, which assumes a documentary-style cinema verité aesthetic, complete with faux interviews. (Much is being made of the pseudo-documentary approach, but Blomkamp is really just picking up where Cloverfield and Rachel’s Getting Married left off.) The parallels to more mundane and familiar episodes of human xenophobia – especially in the setting of apartheid-scorched South Africa – are obvious.

But the film really kicks into gear when MNU agent Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), heading the alien relocation effort, becomes infected with a virus-like alien compound while in District 9 and finds his body converting to prawn physiology.

The aliens’ powerful weaponry has been inert since their arrival on Earth, unusable to humans because its operation requires alien DNA. But Wikus’s accidental discovery provides him with just that, instantly rendering him the most valuable person on the planet. What follows is a chase movie of sorts, Rambo-fied with enough alien firepower to shock and awe the continent.

Like every other aspect of the film – shooting style, portrayal of aliens, setting, budget – the protagonist is notably unorthodox. Not particularly likeable, and bearing a frequently disconcerting resemblance to Steve Carrell (who would fit in this movie roughly as well as the Village People would seem at home in Full Metal Jacket), Copley makes for an interesting leading man.

Yet as emotionally distancing as this might seem, Copley’s flawed banality keeps the action rooted here on Earth rather than in the fantastical stratospheres of Star Wars or Independence Day, and gives his character more of an arc to complete as he is forced to hide from MNU in the one place that affords a bit of safety and anonymity: District 9.

As engrossing, offbeat, and multi-faceted as a hybrid of Schindler’s List, Starship Troopers, The Fugitive, and Lars von Trier’s emphatically unmediated The Celebration, the Peter Jackson-produced District 9 offers a tortuous – but never torturous – cinematic experience completely unlike anything else this year.

Praise of Blomkamp’s limitless originality is somewhat hyperbolic: the film’s individual elements are well-worn, they are merely combined, Tarantino-style, in a new and unexpected way. The plot is Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” on alien steroids. The unsurprising denouement is almost predictably open-ended in light of Children of Men. Even the humanization of the aliens is simply a new variation on the filmic affirmative action of African directors such as Ousmane Sembene, who attempted to re-colonize the silver screen after European colonial pictures reduced the black man’s cinematic status to that of Other – the uncivilized brute. (It might be noted here that District 9's narrative agency is nonetheless dispensed almost entirely to white men.)

But we are living in postmodern times and thorough originality is nigh on nonexistent. It is enough that District 9 offers such a refreshing change of pace, something so manifestly outside of the mainstream, even as it flirts with Hollywood convention.

More than that, it is a reminder that despite the torrent of remakes, reboots, and reinventions in Hollywood, there are genuinely creative filmmakers out there plying their craft. For every Meet the Spartans that hits the cineplex, there is a Pan’s Labyrinth or a Brick out there somewhere.

It can certainly be said that Blomkamp and his virtuosic filmmaking have put South Africa on the map, even by the standards of a nearly hermetic North American audience.